NWA-PCUG Newsletter Article, August 2003
SPAM – Bane of the Internet
by Ira Wilsker
(click to email author)

I hate it; I absolutely hate it. I open my email in the morning and find up to 100 email solicitations offering illegal cable TV descramblers, cheap prescription drugs without a prescription, devices and treatments for “personal enhancement”, university degrees without attending class, voyeuristic opportunities, and the infamous offers of easy riches from the family members of deceased Nigerian dictators. I can typically spend over a half-hour daily deleting this trash. Most of us find the “unsolicited commercial email” a mere nuisance, but to our internet service providers it has become an expensive proposition to process this “spam” email, as it steals internet bandwidth, hard drive space, and processor time, with the costs passed on to us subscribers. What may even be worse is the blatant fraud and criminal solicitations that many of us experience.

According to a report released by the Federal Trade Commission on April 30 (http://www.ftc.gov/reports/spam/030429spamreport.pdf), much of the spam mail we receive contains false claims as well as other deceptive, and probably illegal, content. To determine the degree of proliferation and deception in spam, the FTC created what appeared to be private websites containing unique email addresses only used on those sites, and posted material in popular newsgroups and chat areas, again using unique email addresses. During the collection phase, over 11,000,000 spam emails were sent by citizens, or received by the “dummy” email addresses created for this purpose. Since many internet users wonder where and how spammers get their email addresses, the FTC found that 86% of the email addresses used on their websites and newsgroups were harvested and resold by spammers. The FTC also tracked the success rate of the “remove me” links commonly given by spammers, and found that 63% of the remove requests were not honored. The FTC also found substantial misrepresentation in the sample emails analyzed, including false “From:” and “Subject:” lines, often clearly intended to trick the recipient into opening the message. Many of those messages (17% of “Adult” spam with false headers) would then display pornographic images without any regard to the age or emotional status of the recipient.

In the analysis of about 1000 spam emails, the FTC found that 20% of the emails were for what the FTC labeled “Investment or Business Opportunities”, including such offers as work-at-home, franchise opportunities, chain letters, and other non-securities offers. “Adult” spam, consisting mostly of pornography and dating services, accounted for 18% of all spam, while “Financial” spam, consisting of credit card offers, mortgage refinancing, cheap insurance, and other related items composed 17% of spam. Close behind were “Products and Services” (16%), “Health” related spam offering dietary supplements, disease prevention, and physical enhancement (mostly sexual in nature) accounted for 10% of all spam. Only 7% of the spam was for computer or Internet related equipment or services. It should be noted that all of this spam received by the FTC was indeed unsolicited, and not in response to an inquiry made by FTC staffers, even though many of the emails claimed (falsely) to be a reply to an inquiry, or the result of signing up for an “opt-in” service.

The FTC also investigated the accuracy of the email headers, and found that one-third of all spam mail had false “From:” lines in an attempt to disguise the source of the email. Almost half (46%) of the spams with false “From:” lines appeared to be from an acquaintance of the recipient, apparently to trick the recipient into opening the message. Another 13% of these emails appeared to come from an established business relationship, and 14% had blank sources. Some spammers (3%) try to trick the recipient into opening the messages by showing that the message appeared to be from the recipient himself!

The “Subject:” line of spam was only slightly less deceptive; with 22% of spams containing false subject lines, with one-third of those having a stated subject totally unrelated to the content of the message. 42% of these false subject lines alleged to show some existing business or personal relationship with the recipient. Cumulatively, 44% of all spam mail had false “From:” and/or “Subject:” lines. Personally, I do not understand how anyone could transact business, including possibly sending credit card information, to an unknown individual who is lying about his true identity; that is a real setup for fraud and loss.

The body of the message also often contained deceptive information, with 40% of all spam mail containing one or more falsehoods in the content of the message; of those messages touting “Investment or Business Opportunities”, a full 90% contained false information, while 49% of the “Health” spams had falsehoods. 47% of the travel and leisure related spams contained false information. Considering the “From:”, “Subject:” and body of the spam mail, the cumulative number of false emails rises to 66%, with 96% of all “Investment or Business Opportunities” containing misinformation. Again, it amazes me that so many Internet users are gullible and fall for these deceptions. Despite some states requiring commercial email to contain the prefix “ADV” in the subject line, only 2% of all spam complied.

Then there are the chain letters, which often claim to be legal, even to the point of being endorsed by government agencies. According to the FTC, “Nothing is further from the truth.”

It may get worse – spammers are now targeting our cell phones, and most of us pay to receive text messages, shifting the cost of spam almost totally to us, the recipients.

There is no restriction against any non-profit group using this article as long as it is kept in context, with proper credit given to the author. This article is brought to you by the Editorial Committee of the Association of Personal Computer User Groups (APCUG), an international organization of which this group is a member.

Click here to return to top